Max Steinberg grew up in the same part of Los Angeles where I did, and he graduated from my high school, though it was a decade after I was last there. So I never met him. But I’ve read a lot about him this week, after he died while serving in the IDF in Gaza and his story became the paradigmatic narrative about Americans who go to Israel to join the army.
The piece has come under fire because Benedikt seems to be claiming that Birthright killed Max Steinberg. Or at least that’s what the critics are saying.
I don’t think that’s what Benedikt was trying to say. As I read it, she’s answering a question that a lot of non-Jews (and non-engaged Jews) might be asking: What made this kid — who never seemed to be all that Jewy before — decide to pick up and join the Israeli army? That’s a legitimate question. How many American kids ship off to fight for the Dutch army or the Argentinian navy? (Not very many, I would think.)
Benedikt answers the question by explaining that (a) Steinberg’s parents credit Birthright, and (b) Birthright’s goal is to get American kids to care about Israel. Her assessment seems to be: Look! It worked.
And, “at some point during their all-expenses-paid ten-day trip to a land where, as they are constantly reminded, every mountain and valley is inscribed with 5,000 years of their people’s history,” there is “the moment”— the moment when participants realize just how important Israel is to them, to their fundamental identity, and how important they are to Israel.
According to Steinberg’s parents, that is exactly what happened to Max.
Birthright’s defenders should take her article as a compliment, not an attack.
Benedikt does make one important critical point:
People say Birthright is “just like camp,” and it sure sounds like a very condensed version of the Jewish camp I attended as a kid, whose purpose was, at the very least, to foster a connection to Israel in young Jews—and at best, to get us to move to the country and fight for it. My camp, filled with the children of liberal American Jews, did this by presenting a very simplistic picture of the political situation in Israel and the threat to Jews worldwide, all within the context of helping to fix the world while having the time of your life. Birthright does a form of the same.
Um… are people saying she’s off base here? It seems to me that it’s a fair criticism. Birthright is a ten-day trip, partly because the 6-week summer trips that existed before its inception weren’t attracting unengaged, disconnected Jews (like, um, Max Steinberg). Since it’s beginnings, I’ve heard lots of Jewish educators who are Birthright supporters (and I think I count myself in that group) admit that ten days is just a taste, and that it presents a “simplistic picture.” (And we usually say that if Birthright does its job, we’ll have lots of chances to add layers of complexity to that picture as the attendee engages post-trip.)
Is Benedikt’s attitude toward Birthright a little cynical? Sure. It should be. It’s a multi-million dollar PR campaign for Israel and Jewish identity. It deserves to be examined with some healthy cynicism.
Moral of the story: Chillax. Allison Benedikt said nothing wrong.